School districts and education experts are continuing to express concerns about Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to end "Save Harmless," also known as "Hold Harmless," which ensures that districts don’t see a decrease in Foundation Aid funding compared to the previous year.
At Berne-Knox-Westerlo Central School District, administrators say increases in Foundation Aid in the years following the Great Recession have yielded significant improvements to services offered to students as well as the district’s facilities.
The governor, meanwhile, continues to remind New Yorkers that the large increases in education funding seen over the past few years could not continue and were intended to right the ship, but districts like Berne-Knox-Westerlo who are currently covered under "Save Harmless" are concerned that if the provision is eliminated with no time to prepare, they could lose those years of progress.
“For 16 years, "Save Harmless" has been in place, and to pull the rug out with no warning is putative, its draconian,” said Superintendent Timothy Mundell.
In his office is a white board with what he says are the exact implications for the district, should the governor’s plan to end "Save Harmless" be enacted.
“Going to our community with a 12% tax increase over the two years to fill that gap if we want to maintain the things that we’ve done, it would mean eliminating 12-15 teaching positions,” he said.
He told Spectrum News 1 the plan would bring the district back to 2009 funding levels, well before significant improvements were made to programming and facilities.
The State Budget Division said that according to their numbers, since the Foundation Aid formula was created in 2008, the district’s enrollment at Berne-Knox-Westerlo has dropped 38%,, with more than $4 million in reserves.
Hochul on Thursday said that’s the exact scenario driving the change.
“We’re funding empty seats these days when you base it on a formula that goes back to 2008,” she said. “I want to have the conversations with the Legislature, how we make the right adjustments, how we do what’s right certainly for our students, certainly for the teachers, but also for the taxpayers who who are saying, ‘Why is the school system sitting on enormous reserves?’”
Budget Director Blake Washington emphasized that the situation is fluid, but the governor felt compelled to start the conversation as the administration confronted a $4.3 billion budget gap heading into this session.
“We know this is something that’s going to be an iterative process, something that’s going to happen over time, but we don’t want to wait three to five years to start the discussion,” he said.
Melinda Person, president of New York State United Teachers, is pushing back against the proposal.
She told Spectrum News 1 she has significant concerns about the conversation revolving around population.
“If you have a classroom that has 25 kids in it and then you have a reduction in students and you’re down to 22 kids, what have you saved financially? You still have all of the same costs,” she said.
Person said she isn’t disputing the governor’s concerns about an outdated formula with outdated numbers — some data included, she says, is from the 2000 census. That said, she stresses that with smaller rural districts taking on costs that other districts don’t have, a more comprehensive evaluation of the formula is needed.
“When you do that, you’ll see that many of these districts that are on 'Save Harmless' today would come off of 'Save Harmless' and the formula would generate the funding they are receiving right now,” she said.
Mundell said that in a district where students and families rely on the school district for physical and mental health care, social programming, and other services in addition to typical costs for transporation and building maintenance, he agrees that an updated formula must be well rounded.
“Cost doesn’t always correlate to enrollment so we need to look at this in some different way, we need to find a formula where enrollment is a part but not the sole basis for driving the allocation,” he said.
Both the governor and Washington have stressed in recent weeks that they know this will be a conversation, but the end goal is making sure that money is ending up going where it is most needed.